The NCAA Scene: Five emerging programs

The NCAA Scene: Five emerging programs
Jan 16, 2005, 05:42 am
Miners don't miss a beat

Despite returning the bulk of a team that nearly stole an NCAA tournament game a season ago, there wasn't much national hype for UTEP heading into the season. The main reason for this was the loss of coach Billy Gillispie, who moved on to bigger pastures (in this case, Texas A&M). If the first half of the season is any indication, this program doesn't miss Gillispie at all.

The Miners are led by a duo of seniors, PG Filiberto Rivera and F Omar Thomas. Rivera won a JUCO title at Southeastern CC (IA), and his ability to win big has stayed with him at the next level. Thomas was also a big time JUCO player at Panola in Texas. The Miners also have a nice duo of productive 6'10 post players, in junior John Tofi and Pepperdine transfer Will Kimble. Junior wings Jason Williams and Miguel Ayala are both accomplished scorers from the JUCO ranks.

The Miners have only one true slip up on the season, losing to Texas Tech in December in a game that Rivera missed. The Miners have opened WAC play on a tear, blowing out Rice, one of the conference favorites in the preseason, and doing the impossible by going into Reno and taking a conference game from Nevada. This team is led by players who have been playing in pressure situations for years, and has the talent to make a deep tournament run. Based on this week's win against Nevada, they are top 25 in my book.

The two players that the NBA will take a look at are Rivera and Thomas. If his team played in a bigger conference, you can bet that Rivera would be looked at as a draftable player. He has all the intangibles you could ask for in a floor leader, shoots the ball quite well, and at 6'1 or 6'2, has the size to make it. Thomas is a bit of a stretch, as new coach Doc Sadler has been playing the 6'5 physical specimen in the high post all season. He compares favorably with Texas' PJ Tucker or Wisconsin's Alando Tucker, but unlike those two, he doesn't have another year or two to take his game outside. Thomas has more athleticism than either of the Tuckers, and the same toughness/ability to score on whoever is guarding him. If he doesn't quite have what it takes to make it in league, his dominance at the college level is epitomized by his 28 point, 10 rebound outburst against Nevada. Call him a shoe-in for WAC player of the year, and if you get a chance to watch Omar Thomas play, take it. You won't be disappointed

Catching up with Billy Gillispie...

After turning around the UTEP program shockingly fast a season ago, most believed that Billy Gillispie would eventually get it done at Texas A&M as well. However, nobody thought he take the core of a team that couldn't manage a Big XII win last year and put a winner on the floor in his first season. The skeptics, including myself, scoffed at an 11-0 start, mainly because it consisted of wins over teams you've never heard of, such as Texas Permian Basin and Prarie View. A few heads were probably turned when the Aggies played Kansas down to the wire but even that could be dismissed, as the Jayhawks were without Wayne Simien.

However, that sound you heard last Wednesday was the jaws of college basketball fans across the nation hitting the floor, as A&M handily defeated a very talented Texas team. While the Longhorns clearly weren't the number 9 team in the nation at the time of their defeat, Billy Gillispie has to be commended for turning this group of castaways into a very solid basketball team. Wing Antoine Wright seems to be coming into his own, while sophomore guard Acie Law is shooting 45% from behind the arc. Gillispie is getting a presence down low from freshman C Joseph Jones, currently averaging over 12 points per game on 65% from the floor. The Aggies fell back to earth a bit with a loss at Texas Tech, but this is a team that will finish right in the middle of the pack Big XII, and is only getting better.

As far as NBA types, Antoine Wright is has already been on and off the NBA Draft radar in his two-plus years as an Aggie. At 6'7, he is a prototypical scoring wing on the NBA level, possessing rim-rocking athleticism and some nice scoring tools. After some nice numbers as a freshman, he began appearing as a lottery pick in many mock drafts. Wright fell apart last season along with the rest of his team, as his scoring dropped and he shot just 36% from the floor. Wright seems to be back on track this season, and while Joey Graham is rightfully getting a lot of draft hype these days, Wright might be a better prospect in the long run. If he can hold his scoring average at its current 17 points per game throughout the Big XII slate, the name Antoine Wright is going to rise as quickly as it fell.

Bruins back in the tourney?

Nothing has been more fashionable over the past couple of years than to bash UCLA players for being soft, underachieving, lackadaisical, and such. Those days are quickly coming to an end, as Ben Howland quickly recruited in a group of his players, and has managed to get his young team to play his style of basketball. The team has had some growing pains but has stayed competitive all season, playing undefeated Boston College very well, and beating Michigan at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins lost a close one at Oregon State to start Pac-10 play, but bounced back with a win at Oregon, a sweep of the Washington schools, and a victory this week against Arizona State.

Howland has been trying to get his freshmen to play like upperclassmen and his upperclassmen to start playing, and has actually had some success at both. The much-maligned C duo of Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins is actually producing, while senior wing Dijon Thompson is playing the best basketball of his career. PG Jordan Farmar is the dynamic floor general that Cedric Bozeman was supposed to develop into. At over 15 points and 5 assists per game in conference play, it's been the freshman Farmar's improved confidence and leadership on the floor that has put this team in the W column as of late.

NBA types laughed at Dijon Thompson's efforts to jump to the league early last season, but I would suggest they take another look this spring. Often derided as a one-dimensional player, that dimension would be scoring. He is very adept at scoring off the dribble for a 6'7 wing, using his length to create shots for himself. He also has a very nice touch from deep. Unlike in the past, Thompson is putting in effort on the glass, and his team is winning ballgames. When he gets his jumper going, Thompson scores at will, from pretty much anywhere. There aren't many 2005 draft prospects with better raw tools than Thompson, and I wouldn't be surprised if he snuck into the late first round.

Jordan Farmar doesn't look like an NBA point at first glance, with his wiry frame and cautious play style. However, the more you watch the freshman play, the more you like him. He's got a nice first step and scores very effectively through what I would call craft. He's always getting more athletic players off their feet and flipping in floaters over the outstretched arms of guys who should be sending his shot into the 10th row. While he certainly can be accused of trying to do too much (already four games of 6+ turnovers), the best thing about Farmar is his ability to control tempo and lead the break. The Bruins truly are helpless without him. Farmar is a winner, plain and simple, and within the next two or three years, he is a first round pick.

A New Era at Miami...

Perry Clark's tenure at Miami ended with a thud, as Darius Rice never became the player everybody knew he should have been, and the rest of the team never bought into his system. Former Longhorn assistant coach Frank Haith, fresh off bringing in the top recruiting class in school history, was hired to literally start things over in Hurricane country.

The earliest signs of this team's potential came when Miami knocked off Florida back in December, and the ‘Canes have also beaten decent teams like Massachusetts, NC State, Virginia, and Florida State. While the Canes probably struggle to finish .500 in the ACC, they are on a 3-game winning streak at the moment, after falling to Georgia Tech in the program's inaugural ACC game.

Like Gillispie and Howland above, Haith's rebuilding job couldn't be going much better. He handed the reigns of the team over to three undersized guards – junior Robert Hite, soph Guillermo Diaz, and soph Anthony Harris. All three can handle and will push the ball at every opportunity. Hite and Diaz can be counted on for 20 most nights, while Harris is more of a distributor. Haith has also managed to find himself a frontcourt amongst the wreckage of the Perry Clark days. They don't provide much offense, but senior Will Frisby, junior Gary Hamilton, and sophomore Anthony King all average over 6.5 rebounds per game. King is the anchor, hauling in more than 9 boards and blocking 3.5 shots per.

While Hite is the leading scorer, it's hard to see the 6'2 guard in the NBA someday. He has a 100% wing's mentality, and while his leaping ability is impressive, it's either a dunk or a 3-pointer when he shoots the ball. Diaz is also somewhat of a 2-guard trapped in a PG's body, but unlike Hite, Diaz has a nice midrange game. Possessing an astonishing vertical, Diaz dazzles with an assortment of dribble-drives and fading jumpers in the lane. His range extends well past the 3-point line. Diaz needs to work on his floor general skills, as he is a bit uncomfortable handling the ball, and always attacks defenses by finding shots for himself – not his teammates. Diaz might need two more seasons to develop his PG abilities, but it's hard to see a guard as electric as Diaz not getting a chance to play in the NBA someday.

Boston College sneaking up on you once again

It shouldn't be a surprise that the Eagles are one of four remaining unbeaten teams in the nation, but for the national media, it seems to be just that. You would think returning four starters from an NCAA tourney squad that was a 3-pointer away from upsetting an eventual final four team would get some hype in the preseason, but that didn't happen. The Eagles couldn't even get a sniff at the top 25. But that's about par for the course for Al Skinner. He recruits under-the-radar prospects, wins games, and the presses remain silent

People began waking up on BC after Skinner's boys went into Storrs and brought down Connecticut. The early schedule was a bit weak, but did include a win at UCLA. Similar to the past two seasons, the Eagles' game plan centers around bullish PF Craig Smith, who continues to offer up 20/10 outings on a nightly basis. While Smith has a tendency to get into foul trouble and can be contained if you pay him enough attention, his supporting cast is stronger than in years past. PG's Louis Hinnant and Steve Hailey aren't big scorers, but they average over 8 apg combined. Jared Dudley, Sean Marshall, and Jermaine Watson provide double-digit scoring from the wing, while centers Nate Doornekamp and Sean Marshall provide a lot of size and decent rebounding (11 rpg, 4 bpg combined).

In the fine tradition of Troy Bell, Uka Agbai, and Ryan Sidney, BC has very talented players that leave me scratching my head wondering where these guys were in high school, and just how Skinner found them. The first to discuss is Craig Smith, who simply wasn't recruited by the local schools in his native California. After a year in prep school, Smith stepped on the floor at Boston College and dominated. Despite being just 6'7, Smith requires a defense's full attention down low. He scores with his back to the basket, and once he gets position and the ball, you might as well save your energy and head to the other end of the floor. The problem is that he might be of the 6'7 with shoes variety, and the obvious NBA comparison is Charles Barkley. Given the percentage of players compared to Barkley in college that actually went on to succeed in the NBA, it's easy to see why a team taking Craig Smith in the first round is a bit of a stretch.

The best NBA prospect on the BC roster is the latest of Skinner's finds. Sean Williams wasn't expected to make an immediate impact for the Eagles, but he has. At 6'10 240, Williams has legit C size, and though his offense is a bit raw, his 3 blocked shots in less than twenty minutes per game is putting him on the draft map. Being the teammate of Craig Smith is only going to help his offense in the long run, and his recent 16 point, 10 rebound, 3 block breakout performance in a win against Providence is probably just a warning sign for Big East coaches.

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